When we’re talking healthy food, the conversation seems to always go back to moderation, but what about when it comes to exercise? Are extreme exercise regimens like CrossFit and distance running as healthy as they’re touted to be?
Not too long ago I ran across an article on CrossFit shedding light on what it called a “dirty little secret.” The gist of the article is that because of the way that CrossFit trainers push clients to push themselves to the limit and beyond, people who do CrossFit have ended up seriously injured. The article talks about the prevalence of a condition called exertional rhabdomyolysis, where extreme exercise causes long-term and sometimes permanent damage to the muscles and kidneys.
The whole thing made me wonder about other areas where we push our endurance, like distance running. I love running, and I love the satisfaction of having run distances. In fact, I’ve touted the joys of distance running in this space more than once. This CrossFit article has me questioning any kind of extreme endurance training: how far is too far?
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I’d never had the distance running issues that some folks report during marathon training, like losing my toenails or losing control of my bowels or bladder, but as I read this article on CrossFit, I couldn’t help thinking that some of the things they say are similar to the addages that go along with distance running, especially the idea that injury is just part of the package. In fact, there is research suggesting that running long distances can take years off of your life.
The way the author describes CrossFit culture also reminded me of Bikram Yoga in some ways. Bikram and other hot yoga methods use a warm room to help relax muscles. It allows you to stretch further, but it also makes you more prone to injury. I practiced Bikram for years and definitely overdid it more than once.
CrossFit, Distance Running, and Yoga: How much is healthy?
Along with doing a lot of reading about these three endurance exercise routines, I also took an informal poll of about a dozen people who do CrossFit (special thanks to my friend Shannon Hoffman Hinderberger for connecting me with her CrossFit friends!).
There was a lot of discussion in this informal poll, but I think a few folks made some great points about CrossFit that could really extend to distance running, hot yoga, and other exercise routines with a “push it to the limit” culture:
- Yes, there are CrossFit coaches who push their clients too far. These coaches are irresponsible, and a good coach knows the difference between pushing yourself to the edge and going too far.
- When you find a culture of over-exertion, you don’t have to buy into it. Listen to your body, and back off when it tells you to back off.
- Rest when you need to rest. This might sound like the same advice as above, but backing off on weight, reps, distance, etc is not the same as taking a whole day (or few days, or a week) off to let your body bounce back.
I had a yoga teacher once who I think sums up all of the advice above nicely: “If it hurts, don’t do it.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever push yourself. There’s a difference between mild discomfort and pain. Pain is your body telling you to back off, and when you listen to your body, I think it makes a world of difference.
Endurance Training: Finding Balance
When I am going through distance training, there are many times that I will skip a run or even a week of runs. If my knee or ankle feels strange or sore – since I’ve injured both before – I skip my run that day. That is my body telling me that it needs some time to regroup, and I think that once you tune into that, it’s not too hard to tell when you’re working hard versus when you’re hurting yourself.
Just like with food, it comes back to moderation, doesn’t it? Sure, you can indulge in a decadent dessert once in a while. You can push your body’s limits in exercise, too. Just like you might balance a day of junk food with a day of super healthy eating, it’s important to seek balance in your exercise routines. Besides – you lose a lot more ground if you injure yourself and have to stay off of your feet to recover than if you take it easier or even skip a workout when your body is telling you that it needs rest.
I bet that CrossFit, distance running, and hot yoga aren’t the only exercise routines where there’s the potential to push yourself too far. Have you had any extreme exercise experiences? How do you tell the difference between the discomfort of exertion and the pain of overexertion?